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Family receives apology after burial photo mix-up

27 November 2008

by Bill Bowder

A RECTOR’s efforts to reassure a widow over the location of her husband’s burial plot have led to wide­spread press coverage and sug­ges­tions that he left the elderly widow, Martha Hill, shocked and upset (Press).

The problems began for the Revd David Thomas, Rector of St John the Baptist, Armitage, near Rugeley, after the burial of George Hill in February this year. Mrs Hill then went to live in Spain for a time, Mr Thomas said on Tuesday. It appears that some mem­bers of the family were then in dispute with the Rector over the location of the burial plot.

“The gravedigger told me that he had to keep on moving a large vase of flowers back to their proper place after they kept on being moved to another place,” he said. “I didn’t take much notice, because there are more things to do than worry about flower vases being moved around.”

Mr Hill’s daughter asked Mr Thomas where the grave was. “I told her that the gravedigger said it was here,” he said, and he had pointed out the place. “But in these days of tidi­ness, there was no evidence that the ground had been disturbed and I could not prove it any other way, even if it was written down.

“The gravedigger suggested that we took a quick look at the coffin plate: it would be easily done.”

About two or three weeks later, the gravedigger had been in the church­yard and decided to dig a hole, tapering at the bottom, exposing the coffin plate.

“I took some photographs with the camera I always have to take pictures for the parish magazine. I took the photos, which showed the grave was where I said it was, and I thought that should be the end of the matter,” Mr Thomas said.

Mr Hill’s widow returned to the UK and asked to see where the grave was; “so I dropped the photographs in when I was passing,” he said. “After that, all hell broke loose, with the press saying I had sent photographs of the coffin to the grieving widow. Then the rest of the press leapt in — even the BBC.

“I will let the row die down, and then I will go and see her. I have called at the house three times, but I have had no reply.” Asked what lessons could be learnt from the situation, Mr Thomas said: “That you should watch your back.”

Miss Hill is reported in the press as saying she had been trying to prevent knowledge of the problems reaching her mother. When Mrs Hill had found the photographs, Miss Hill said, “she was distraught. We had not told her what had been going on because she is almost 78.

“Imagine her shock when she opened that envelope and there was a picture of Dad’s coffin inside.”

A spokesman for the diocese of Lichfield said that the Chancellor, Judge Marten Coates, had said that uncovering the coffin was, in legal terms, an exhumation, and a faculty should have been applied for. On the basis of what he had been told, how­ever, it appeared that the Rector had acted “with the best of intentions”, and that “there would be no purpose in directing anyone to petition for a retrospective faculty.”

The diocese said the Rector had apologised to the family for the way in which he handled the matter. The Archdeacon of Lichfield, the Ven. Chris Liley, had also spoken to the family, and had apologised that the excavation of the coffin had taken place without their knowledge. He also apologised that the photos had been posted through the letter box rather than handed over in person.

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